I’m the big anime watcher in my family, but my brother and sister dabble in it occasionally, as well. Back in the day when you’d see anime on TV before midnight in America, my brother got huge into Yu Yu Hakusho when it aired on Cartoon Network during its Toonami block. I never saw an episode, though. For whatever reason, I was never curious, even though my brother liked it so much. (Or maybe that’s why. The stuff I watch has to be cooler than what he watches! Can’t discount the possibility of me being a huge asshole back then.) Now, though, I have reason: Yu Yu Hakusho is the breakout manga of Hunter x Hunter author Yoshihiro Togashi. I’ve grown to be a huge admirer of both anime adaptations of the series, along with Level E, another adaptation of a Togashi manga. How could I not be curious?
With that in mind, I bought the YYH blu-rays one day when they went on sale and offered to watch the entire series with my brother during the summer. It’s been an interesting experience!
(By the way, I am going to spoil plenty of stuff about Yu Yu Hakusho, so stop now if you care about that sort of thing.)
For those who haven’t watched the series but for whatever reason don’t care about spoilers, here’s the skinny: Yu Yu Hakusho is about a rough student, Yusuke Urameshi, who is a general delinquent in every respect. He doesn’t give a shit about school, his home life sucks, he gets in fights daily and he sexually harasses his only friend, Keiko. He’s a charming fellow all around. One day, though, he saves a little boy from getting hit with a car, which turns out to be the sole good deed in Yusuke’s life, since he is killed by the impact. This one selfless act earns Yusuke the opportunity to earn his way back into the living world by becoming a spirit detective and solving cases for those in charge of the spirit world. As you might expect, Yusuke gets himself into scrapes that amplify in danger through the course of the series.
Yu Yu Hakusho is an interesting series, because in it I can definitely see the building blocks for Hunter x Hunter. YYH‘s world isn’t quite that weird, but it has a rough edge to it, a sense of true danger. Part of this is because Yusuke himself is a pretty dangerous protagonist. He has a good heart, but he’s a reckless boy. He’s not reckless in the way many shonen protagonists are, willingly sacrificing themselves to save everyone. Yusuke has a revelation near the end of the series — that he goes from fight to fight not really thinking about why he’s doing it. He fights simply to fight, always pulled into battle by the desires of his enemies; there’s no deeper reason behind that, and that thought leaves Yusuke uncomfortable. Even when Yusuke fights to live again, it comes off more like he’s doing it because the only other alternative is death. After all, he wasn’t doing much with his life before that. Yusuke is a boy who fights like someone who has nothing to lose, but he has nothing to gain for a long time, either.
That type of character building is one of the parts of YYH I enjoyed. The characters are mainly a collection of archetypes — hot-headed Yusuke, delinquent with a heart of gold Kuwabara, brooding loner with a dark past Hiei and calm thinker Kurama. However, the way they interact and bounce off each other allows the viewer to get a good sense of their values. Kuwabara has a strong heart, and he’s often mocked for it, but bit by bit you can see how it affects someone like Hiei, whose experiences hardened his heart early in life. On the flipside, it’s interesting to see how Kurama leans on the cold, calculating ways of his early life to protect his new friends. I wasn’t totally sure how much I’d like the characters in this series, but I came out of it enjoying them quite a bit.
The way Kurama and Hiei evolve is particularly interesting, because it involves something I wish the series had explored just a bit more — that the demon world from which they hail is not as starkly evil as it seems. Spirit world is depicted as a bureaucracy in which those in charge make tough decisions that keep the main realms of existence in a state of relative calm. Sometimes they’re upfront, and sometimes there’s some rather shady backroom dealing going on.
YYH is full of that sort of thing, where it takes a common shonen device and undermines it just a bit. I think spirit world is deliberately supposed to evoke something like the spirit world the viewer briefly sees in Dragon Ball Z, but it runs on something more like traditional politics, which shakes the viewer’s trust. YYH‘s world starts black and white and becomes grayer before the show ends. I think this gives the ending — where the spirit, living and demon worlds enter into a truce on the orders of the demon world’s new leader — some stronger ground to stand on. There’s no superior world that has the moral ground with which it can subjugate the others. Each world has its good points and bad.
However, I will say this contributes to some things that disappointed me about the series. Despite all that good stuff I mentioned, my favorite arc in the series is also probably the least conceptually complex, the Dark Tournament arc. It has its problems, for sure — episodes waste time like nobody’s business, a whole host of characters aren’t all that interest and are clearly fodder for the characters the show wants the viewers to care about, and it’s basically a flimsy excuse to put on a series of fights. But I like how it evolves from something simple to something a bit more emotionally complex, with the shared past of Yusuke’s mentor, Genkai, and Toguro, the demon who forces Yusuke to enter the tournament so that they will battle at the end. Toguro’s fear of death versus Genkai’s acceptance of her mortality is an interesting subplot amid all the grunting and machismo and whatnot. It’s still a simple arc, but it delivers more than it promises.
I can’t really say that about the two arcs that come after, Chapter Black and Three Kings. Both are set up in a more complex way than the Dark Tournament. Chapter Black is about Shinobu Sensui, who was Earth’s spirit detective before Yusuke. He conducted himself in a black-and-white matter, but his moral beliefs were shattered when he witnessed the darker side of humanity. Three Kings, meanwhile, is about the three most powerful demons in demon world waging war for control. These are setups that can go interesting places; however, neither of them do, at least when it comes to the emotional arc. Sensui’s feelings of anger and despair are simplified as much as possible, and certain revelations about him make him a rather gimmicky character, I think. It feels weird to say this about a shonen series, but Sensui feels too much like a supervillain for my taste. Toguro has that feel, too, but his deepest fear makes him a more grounded character despite all his posturing about power levels and giant muscles. Three Kings, meanwhile, is just incredibly rushed in all aspects, which, again, feels weird to say about an arc that’s 18 episodes long. But there’s barely any time for stuff to breathe — the plot just barrels headlong toward the end. In its own way, it’s just as bad as all the stalling in the Dark Tournament arc.
Really, I feel most let down by these two arcs because they basically turn into the Dark Tournament arc (i.e. a series of fights). It’s obvious this would happen; this is, after all, a fighting series. The characters are going to battle it out. But in doing so, these two arcs basically discard most (but not all) of what’s interesting about them in favor of the fighting, whereas the Dark Tournament weaves in some more interesting stuff to go along with the battles. I would have been up for Sensui being a more complex villain, or more intrigue with Kurama and Hiei being planted in the ranks of two of the demon kings. (Though Hiei’s relationship with Mukuro does go to some neat places.) Instead, there’s lots and lots of fighting.
This probably would have annoyed me more if the fights didn’t get more interesting with time. In particular, the battles in Chapter Black are cool due to the concept of Territory, which strikes me as a precursor to Nen in Hunter x Hunter. Basically, a person’s power encompasses a certain area around them, and within that area, everything operates by the rules set by the person’s specific power. For instance, one person’s power stipulates that within his area of influence, nobody can use violence against him. He can be defeated only in a battle of wits. And for the most part, battles unfold in interesting ways; it’s not simply two meatheads punching the shit out of each other. Characters do some nice planning that portends the great battles we’re seeing in Hunter x Hunter right now. There’s also some cool animation in these battles. Here’s a tidbit I didn’t know before watching the series: One Akiyuki Shinbo directed and storyboarded several episodes of the series, and several them are some of the most visually distinctive episodes of the show. There’s one in particular where Yusuke battles a psychic doctor that looks fucking cool as hell.
There’s one problem that often keeps the fights from hitting as hard as they should: This series is obsessed with undermining its own drama by resurrecting characters for the dumbest reasons. Shonen has a pretty bad reputation for being really cheap with character deaths, but Yu Yu Hakusho has to be among the worst offenders in this regard. The worst is during the Dark Tournament arc, during which three major characters are killed off but are then brought back in increasingly dumb ways. (One in particular still makes me quite mad when I think about it now.) It’s bad enough where I didn’t buy into basically any drama that came up regarding characters potentially dying; I knew it would never stick, and guess what? It never sticks! Ever! My enjoyment of the battles is solely due to the thought put into them and has nothing to do with how they play into the drama. It’s basically impossible to care about any of the drama in YYH unless you are incredibly gullible.
But a lot of these problems mattered a lot less to me than they would have if I watched it all by myself, because I watched the whole thing with my brother. He had a good time seeing my reactions to everything, and I enjoyed heckling the nonsense with him and appreciating all the good stuff. My favorite game we did is looking out for any demon that looked like a humanoid animal and riffing dumb stuff like “BUT I’M A WALRUUUUUUUS” or “LISTEN TO ME I’M A SNAAAAAAAAAAAKE.” If anyone else were in the room with us, they would be incredibly irritated and think of us as total idiots, and I wouldn’t blame them. That said, anime so rarely gives me an opportunity to bond in dumb ways with my siblings, so whatever. Maybe I would have dropped the show if I were watching it by myself, but it flew by while watching with my bro bro. There’s something to be said for that.